Putting Fetters On Internet

India’s pending proposal on the possible modification of the International Telecommunication Regulations will be held in Dubai in December shows the potential for a deeply concerning impact on Indian telecommunications, Internet, the ICT sector, as well as the citizens.

India’s proposal for the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), hosted by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) is not only consistent with the stance favoring governmental control over the Internet — adopted by China, Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Arab States for the most part — but in fact, has the potential of wide- spread abuse, overreach into internet, including content regulation. Further, it denies any recourse to service providers, other affected parties or citizens from India.

Overreach

This is particularly true given its deep techno-economic nature, and the loose, and sometimes, vague use of definitional terms such as ICT, spam and operating agencies in the belief that the proposals are harmless or advance India’s objectives of ICT development for inclusive growth. However, nothing can be further from the truth. First, the ITR is a binding treaty that could impact over a billion Indians over the next two decades. India’s proposal binds not just the nation-state, but even licensed service providers and the entire gamut of stakeholders of the ICT sec- tor via a binding treaty that was last revised 24 years ago in 1988. Thus, India’s proposal exponentially increases an inter-governmental body’s reach over its constitutional mandate over telecom, but would do so across the current UPA government till 2014. Given its far-reaching implications on approximately half a billion Indian internet users and a billion mobile users, it is crucial that this issue be discussed at length in the Cabinet and in Parliament to ensure that all political parties support the Telecom Ministry’s decision to subject telecom, internet, cyber security and content regulation — essentially free speech — via a binding treaty, into the hands of an intergovernmental body such as the ITU.

Second, the ITU prohibits multi-stakeholder or inclusive decision-making on internet governance issues. India’s proposal would be implemented in the form of a binding treaty wherein decisions that lead to the formation of the treaty will be explicitly prohibited, as far as the participation of business, private sector, civil society, academia or the technical community is concerned.
This presents a dangerous situation since not only are the regulations expanding ITU’s reach into the Internet, cyber security, and by consequence, content regulation and free speech, the ITU’s constitution also explicitly prevents the bottom-up, consultative and inclusive decision-making that has been responsible for the phenomenal growth of the Internet.

Opaque

Next, the proposal sans trans- parent public consultation leaves out key stakeholders. First and foremost, the views of civil society, academia and the technical community have not even been sought by the DoT. Second, the industry was asked for inputs based on a draft in which they had no role to play, in spite of a year’s time in preparation of the draft comments. Further, a reading of the various industry submissions shows that nearly most, if not all inputs provided by the industry, have been disregarded with no valid reason

Lastly, despite the need for inputs ahead of a possible binding treaty to be discussed in the Parliament, no effort has been made to bring this to the attention of the Parliament and the Parliamentary Standing Committee on IT at any stage.
And even where the merits of the proposal are concerned, it is unclear why the government, which has complete authority and regulatory powers, wishes to surrender its sovereign jurisdiction to an intergovernmental body against which neither the “operating agencies” nor the users have any recourse under domestic law whatsoever. The proposal allows for other countries to engage in widespread content regulation, surveillance and takedowns that potentially impacts free speech and online freedom at one hand, and increases costs for Indian consumers using Internet and mobile telephony, on the other.

The proposal not only goes against the multiple commitments that the government has given on the need to keep inter- governmental frameworks away from Internet governance, ICT and especially content regulation, it also ignores completely the fact that the expansion of regulations through ITU into the internet space will seriously damage investor confidence, which is already at an all time low. Ignoring the global dialogue when India is desperately seeking investments certainly goes against the need to improve investor confidence.

Damage

Finally, it ignores the existing unparalleled success of internet governance structures, leading to penetration, innovation and access which will empower online nearly 3 billion people across the world — half a billion of them Indians by 2016. The government must reconsider seriously India’s proposal — bring the issue into the Parliament for a full fledged debate, transparently place India’s proposals on the DoT website, along with all inputs, letters received from industry and civil society and have a discussion on how India’s proposal will advance our national cause in the 21st century. This is crucial as we are less than a week away from the WCIT 2012 meetings in Dubai.

This article appeared in Mail Today on November 29th, 2012.

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